Q & A Policy Fellowship Series: Dr. Lida Beninson

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Dr. Lida Beninson earned her Ph.D. in Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder. While there she also earned a Graduate Certificate from the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. In Washington she was a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation in the Division of Computer and Information Science and Engineering. She currently works at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine as a Program Officer on the Board of Higher Education and Workforce.

When did you decide to become a fellow? During a summer internship at the National Science Foundation, my mentor observed that I really enjoyed the nature of science policy work and networking with the people involved. When I told her how much I preferred my internship activities to my bench research activities, she told be about the AAAS fellowship. After reading up on it and seeing how many researchers transformed their careers as a result of the fellowship experience, I was sold.

How did you prepare for applying for the fellowship? One of the first things I did was find the fellowship scoring matrix and post it in my office cubicle. The main criteria for the fellowship is strong research, leadership, and communication skills. Another essential qualification for the fellowship is a demonstrated interest in science policy. As I continued my doctoral research, I carved out time to pursue policy coursework, communicate the importance of research funding to my local US representative, engage in my local FOSEP chapter, join an editorial board for a science policy journal, author a science policy blog, and apply for science policy awards in related research fields (for example, the American Institutes of Biological Sciences). The fellowship program is fiercely competitive, but I felt really prepared for my fellowship interviews and projects having engaged in so many policy activities prior to arriving in DC.

What’s a typical day/week like for you? Not a single day or moment is typical! I am involved in many different projects at different agencies with different levels of responsibility. What is essential to my work and to staying involved in many projects is networking. I usually go through some form of networking every day, and the larger and deeper you spread your network, the more likely you are to be invited to join cool projects. Many federal agencies are spread thin, but fellows can be very helpful in moving projects forward when leadership is busy.

What’s been the most gratifying part of being a fellow? There is a rapid velocity of learning, and I love it. It’s normal for a fellow to become a fast “surface” expert in a completely unrelated field. For example, my doctoral degree is in Integrative Physiology, but I work on computer science and big data initiatives here at the National Science Foundation. I still can’t program a line of code or work with petabytes of data, but I am familiar with big picture visions for these fields and their underlying research infrastructure.

What’s been the biggest challenge as a fellow? Finding the right mentor for your fellowship. Mentorship is key- if you don’t have a great person guiding you through the policy world, it’s easy to feel lost and underutilized. Take time to understand your prospective mentor’s leadership style and team dynamics. How will they help foster your professional advancement? What roles will you have on projects? How many people do you need to report to? How much time is available for professional development opportunities? Don’t be afraid to ask for specifics.

What advice would you give to people who want to become fellows?  Find the right mentor!

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered since become a fellow? Networking is key! You won’t get as much out of your fellowship if you don’t network. And don’t worry if you think you’re bad at it. Just keep at it, or take a professional development seminar to improve.

How does your scientific background help or hinder your duties? The part of my scientific training that’s most relevant is understanding what research life is like for students, post-docs, and faculty. When policies on science policy are on the table, bringing that perspective can be really valuable for the research community. Additionally, fellows bring focus to the need for evidence and data before making decisions. That is a very valuable perspective in the policy world.

What’s it like living in DC? It’s exciting and enriching! After you get over the shock from the enormous cost of living, you realize that there are many opportunities for enrichment and networking. There are always lectures, workshops, and seminars open to the public, and many other fun things are free, like the museums and festivals. There are even beautiful hiking trails nearby and several beaches to choose from.

How has your experience as a fellow shaped your future goals? I am currently a program officer at the National Academies of Sciences and my fellowship was crucial for this position. The knowledge that I gained about the policy process was important, but even more important were the connections I made through networking during the fellowship. By working on a variety of projects during the fellowship, I met people in different sectors of science policy and could engage in discussions that helped me shape my future goals and opened doors to new opportunities.

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